A wise-man (in the form of a drunken friend) said to me last year that “A mistake is a friend with which you grow”. Top of the news this week is Adele’s performance of All I Ask at the Grammys, something I feel that is slightly hyped and actually quite refreshing. Little glitches remind us that performances are live and that part of the nature of live performance is taking a risk (something that is less the case at the Superbowl half-time performance with previously recorded tracks). Other glitches that come to mind are Christina Aguilera’s fumbling of the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner at the Superbowl in 2011 and Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude at the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012. If anything, all of these actually demonstrate the performer’s sheer professionalism and their determination not to fall at a hurdle.
A few years ago I had grown complacent about checking the tuning of my bass as it seemed that an earthquake would have no effect on the tuning of my main gigging bass. On this particular occasion, I had, however, borrowed a friend’s bass and after the soundcheck I had put it back in its case before grabbing it to play later that evening. The first song had a bass and vocal intro so all was absolutely fine until the keyboards and rest of the band entered in the first verse. This bass was obviously not as weather-proof as my usual bass and it had obviously detuned itself quite significantly in the time between soundcheck and performance adding a dose of microtonality to our band performance (much to the understandable annoyance of the singer who had no idea which way to go!). After the inevitable accusatory glares between band members I tried to re-tune each string as inconspicuously as possible, though not escaping the notice of the bassist of an internationally renowned band who were playing after us. He let me know as soon as we finished.
On another occasion I was accompanying a singer in front of a packed (and attentive) music venue. I sat down (over) confidently at the piano stool to be be quickly met with the thought of “What the hell am I meant to be playing?”. The singer had given me a piece of paper with some chords scribbled out and I had listened to a recording that morning and not thought much about it until I was sat at the piano. The singer decided that the best option was to stare at me like I was some sort of maniac and call someone that she regularly played with in the venue to come up and play instead, leaving me to crouch down behind the piano with a choice selection of words seemingly directed at her (but mainly directed at myself for putting myself in that situation and not having prepared properly).
It has re-assured me, however, that I am not alone in such situations and I have been enjoying comparing my own experiences with other musicians’ horror stories. One musician was sat at a harpsichord playing with an orchestra and choir for Handel’s Messiah only to turn around and knock the drum pattern button on a Clavinova. Not being technologically minded he felt that the best option was to exit the stage behind the orchestra on his hands and knees leaving those more technologically minded around him to press the Stop button.
At an organ inauguration at Blackpool Cathedral the recitalist had spent the afternoon re-writing the final page of his First Organ Sonata. During the performance that evening, he began Bach’s Wedge Prelude to find the entire organ had ciphered (a whole noise of sticking notes). Lights went and the team of organ builders, who were supposed be enjoying the fruits of their labour, set to work to try and discover the course of this disaster. After much head scratching they lifted the keyboards to find the pencil erasings of a thousand schoolboys. Dustpan and brush to the rescue and the concert was able to continue.
On another occasion, a friend’s cello teacher was performing the Tchaikovsky Rococo variations. Sitting through the orchestral introduction, having rehearsed extensively for the performance, she began thinking about something that had happened that morning or about a difficult corner in the performance. She suddenly became aware that her mind was not where it needed to be at that moment in time and only just managed to find her way into the first passage, at which point, thankfully the hard work paid off.
We are all vulnerable to mistakes, whether through technological issues or losing focus. From my most recent experience, once my brain started to think too consciously the result was a mish-mash of thoughts leading to becoming flustered and confused. Paul McCartney, Adele, Luciano Pavarotti and Barbara Streisand have all spoken about performance anxiety and how it can hit anybody regardless of the size of the audience and the venue. Sometimes preparation is not available, and in such cases pre-performance focus time is even more important (this is one occasion I can see a genuine purpose for a risk assessment). I could have avoided all of my experiences if I had taken this time to think it over, and listened to the track or just played it through in my head before getting up on stage.
As much as I welcome mistakes as my friends, I am happy for them to only visit from time to time, and in the meantime I plan to grow!!